What is copyright, who owns it and how long does it last?

Copyright is an intellectual property right assigned automatically to the creator. It prevents unauthorised copying and publishing of an original work. Copyright applies to research data and plays a role when creating, sharing and reusing data.

What is covered

Under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 copyright applies to:

  • original literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works
  • sound recordings, films, broadcasts or cable programmes
  • the typographical arrangement of publications

Most research outputs such as spreadsheets, publications, reports and computer programs fall under literary work and are therefore protected by copyright. Facts, however, cannot be copyrighted.

Useful facts about copyright ownership and transfer

  • the author(s) or creator(s) of a work automatically own(s) copyright and this can be assumed as soon as the work exists in a recorded form
  • for copyright to apply, the work must be original and fixed in a material form (written or recorded); there is no copyright in ideas or unrecorded speech
  • if a work has two authors, the copyright will by default be owned by both authors
  • for work created during employment, legally the copyright owner is the employer, subject to 'any agreement to the contrary' — in practice many academic institutions assign copyright in research materials and publications to the researchers, but researchers should check how their institution assigns copyright
  • for collaborative research or derived data, copyright is held by all the investigators or institutions involved
  • for data collected via interviews that are recorded and/or transcribed, the researcher holds the copyright of recordings and transcripts but each speaker is an author of his or her recorded words in the interview (Padfield, T (2010) Copyright for archivists and records managers, 4th ed., London: Facet Publishing)
  • copyright can be transferred by the owner, but only in writing, by means of a transfer document called an assignment
  • if researchers wish to publish large extracts from an interview, it is advisable to obtain a transfer of copyright from interviewees
  • creators of a work can also hold moral rights and publications rights
  • a database may be protected by copyright in the content and database right in the structure
  • data can be reproduced for non-commercial teaching or research purposes without infringing copyright under the fair dealing concept, providing that the data source used, data distributor and the copyright holder are acknowledged
  • if secondary users wish to repoduce data, they must obtain copyright clearance from the rights holder 

Copyright duration 

The duration of copyright depends on the type of work. The table below is highly simplified.

Type of workCopyright duration
Literary and artistic works 70 years from the end of the year of the death of creator
Sound recordings 50 years from date of creation
Typographical arrangements 25 years from date of publication
Crown Copyright 50 years from date of publication or 125 years from date of creation

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